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How to get a rubber stamp approval

How many times have you heard someone say, “There was nothing I could do. I was just following the rules”? 

If you think back on some of the great travesties of history, they didn’t happen because of one act or decision—or even one individual. They were made possible by many acts and many people, including those who had some power to influence the course of events but chose to abdicate their responsibility rather than rock the boat.

So why am I talking about this?

Tuesday evening (September 7), the Halifax and West Community Council held two virtual public hearings prior to approving three new highrises on the Halifax Peninsula. You may recall the #SizeMatters e-newsletter and video I sent you last week, explaining why it’s a bad idea to build highrises when municipalities are supposed to be reducing carbon emissions (the embodied carbon footprint of highrises is huge). It’s also a really bad idea to force people out of affordable housing units in order to make way for luxury highrises at a time when the affordable housing crisis is so severe that some people see no other option than to pitch a tent in the city’s parks.

But you already know all this. Which brings me to the word “excuse.” 

noun: excuse; plural noun: excuses
“a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense.”

It’s important to understand how excuses are used in the context of decision-making that impacts our lives. Let’s take the example of a municipal decision to approve building highrises—though I encourage you to extrapolate the steps below to see if they ring true for an issue you’re grappling with.

Municipal Decision-Making Process to Maintain the Status Quo

Step 1: Create regulations that will serve the outcome you want (Halifax Regional Municipality Centre Plan

  • First, hold a public consultation process that will allow decision makers to say they heard from LOTS of people
  • Then cherry-pick from the public’s feedback to serve the outcome you want; be sure to blur any information that suggests more people were opposed to the new regulation(s) than in favour

Step 2: Make the approval process as complicated as possible

  • Place the most obscure and uninspired ad possible in the local newspaper to satisfy the requirement to notify the public about an upcoming hearing or approval process
    Use lots of case numbers to refer to the plan or amendment going before the Council; delete any wording that might clarify what’s being discussed and how it might impact local communities
  • Direct people to your website, where they will be bounced from page to page in a vain search for answers; throw in several links to PDF docs with lots of legal mumbo jumbo

Step 3: Make the public feel stupid and uninformed when speaking on the matter

  • Insist that the concerns community members are raising aren’t relevant; for example, if someone raises a concern about the carbon footprint of a highrise development, point out that the municipality doesn’t have jurisdiction over building codes (DO NOT let the conversation veer to anything the municipality does have jurisdiction over, such as building heights or approving building developments)
  • If members of the public persist, clarify that the issue at hand is the approval of a pre-approved plan, which has met the regulations that were previously enacted to approve it

Step 4: Play your EXCUSE card

  • Using a sympathetic, authoritative, or patronizing tone (or a combination of all three), explain that you’re limited in what you can do in this situation—i.e., Council can only vote on whether or not the proposal meets the regulations (the ones these same councillors voted in or perhaps inherited)
  • The vote then passes swiftly; efforts to lay blame at anyone’s feet are successfully mitigated

It’s a pretty simple, tried-and-true playbook. It’s particularly effective at giving the impression that some sort of democratic process took place; even though some might not agree with the outcome, how can anyone fault “democracy”?

I don’t know at what point our democracy was hijacked, but it has been—just like our economy, which our grandparents probably wouldn’t recognize today.

Once upon a time, it was possible to support a family on one income, and buying a home was within reach. Now young people find themselves living in their parents’ basements, paying down their student debt, and trying to save enough money to move out on their own.

I’m sorry to say there’s no payoff message here, only a question:

How do we go forward at this moment in history when the future of humanity will be determined in our lifetime?
I know it’s heavy, but as the scientists keep reiterating, it’s not about whether the Earth will survive—it will. The only question is whether humans will too. More importantly, perhaps, is whether it’ll be a world we will want to be alive in and will want for our children and grandchildren.

History doesn’t care much about excuses. Those who wield them at the expense of humanity are never judged kindly in the end.

Those who do muster the courage to speak out may not be celebrated at the time, but their integrity is not forgotten. Thank you, Councillor Patty Cuttell, for voting NO on the proposal pertaining to the two highrises at Robie, College, and Carlton Streets. It’s telling that even though you’re an urban planner by profession, the concerns you raised as a planner still couldn’t save the day.
For a refresher on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released August 9, 2021, go to: Scientists Issue a Code Red (The Guardian) and ‘A Code Red For Humanity’ (The Daily, a podcast from The New York Times)

For a look at the response to the affordable housing crisis in Halifax, check out these:

Halifax police arrest, pepper spray protesters as city evicts homeless people from parks
Halifax street navigator struggles to find places for people displaced by shelter tent removals

A city worker uses a chainsaw to cut through a shelter at the former Halifax Memorial Library. Photo: Zane Woodford/Halifax Examiner

Peace out,


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